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MIKE DOWNEY

Cardmania Won't Fold Yet

October 14, 1994|MIKE DOWNEY

The very small man hoses off the very tall horse, then squeegees away the excess water with a stiff brush. In almost blinding midmorning brightness, the horse's coat glistens. He is young and frisky. He is fit as a filly and ready to run.

"C'mon, let's go see Card now," Derek Meredith says, and steers a visitor toward the hay-strewn stalls that he and his wife must muck themselves, not having much help. Their stable is small. Helen handles the exercise riding. Derek does the training. And one of their horses will be running Saturday at Santa Anita for the first time in nine months, but he is not so young, not so fit. He is quite old, in fact, and held together by nuts and bolts.

Perking up at the sight of company, Cardmania raises his head and the two men duck underneath, stepping inside the cramped stall. "Here," Derek says, kneeling in the straw, gingerly rubbing the horse's fetlocks. "See right here, this side of his foot?

"Titanium screws."

Later on, he even produces the X-rays. Like an athlete whose luck ran out, Cardmania has been on the disabled list. He broke a hind cannon bone during a workout, only a couple of months after winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint race in a thrilling photo finish last November. That could have been the end of him, would have been the end of many a horse. Not old Card, though.

Here he stands, a gelding of 8, entitled to a nice life in some pasture. Helen Meredith volunteers for an organization called the Pegasus Foundation, which finds homes for aging thoroughbreds who might otherwise be put to sleep. She keeps some in her own backyard in El Monte. For a while, during his recovery period, old Cardmania himself was one of them.

"A Breeders' Cup champion. An Eclipse Award winner," Derek marvels, shaking his head at the memory. "Out back with a bunch of cripples."

His best runner. His bread-winner.

"Claim to fame," Meredith agrees, laughing. "Pays the mortgage."

But right around his 44th birthday, which was Valentine's Day, Derek nearly got his heart broken. As it was, his stable was fairly unoccupied. He laid off grooms, keeping only one to reduce costs. Cardmania, having just been voted racing's best sprinter for 1993, was not attracting the kind of interest an Eclipse winner should draw. Paying clients weren't dropping by. And then his meal ticket, old Card, came back limping one February morning at Hollywood Park, where the Meredith stable is based. This was the last straw.

Cardmania had caught Meafara at the wire in the Cup run. Then he went out in January and won the San Carlos Handicap. Finally, Meredith had himself a superhorse. Old or not, Cardmania was in peak racing form. Derek circled a date on his calendar--March 5 and the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap. The horse's owner, Jean Couvercelle, a Frenchman, would be so pleased if Card could bring home that one.

Instead, Helen Meredith, who speaks French, had to telephone overseas to give the owner the bad news. Cardmania was injured, perhaps finished. He would be taken to Alamo Pintado in Santa Ynez to have twin screws inserted, then need months of total rest.

Derek picks a pack of smokes from a desktop, lights one and says, "You know, you learn in racing to take the good with the bad. But this, this was truly bad."

His frustration grew. Even his Eclipse Award never came in the mail. For five years in his native England, Meredith had been a jockey as well as an amateur boxer, fighting more than 300 bouts. Then he moved to the United States in 1980, became reacquainted with a Scotswoman whom he had met 17 years before, married her, set up shop and waited for that one wonderful horse to come along. It did.

So many spectators at California tracks had taken a shine to the old gelding.

"Card's such a character," Meredith says. "When you want him to work, he won't. If you give him a day off, he wants to run. He makes his own schedule."

Derek consults his schedule to see when Cardmania actually began running again. In late June, they went for a walk together. On the morning of Aug. 3, the screws got their first good test at a gallop. Little by little, the horse has improved. He knocked off five-eighths of mile last week in a minute, maybe even a fraction under. Derek thought his old horse looked happy.

But practice is practice. To see how Cardmania responds in a real race, Meredith will enter him in something called the Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at Santa Anita on Saturday. Card is rusty and probably won't win. But if he shows flashes of old form, Meredith will ship him to Kentucky for the next Breeders' Cup come November, crossing his fingers for a rerun of the 1993 race.

Eight-year-olds don't win many big races. Eight-year-olds rarely run in big races.

"Well, see, there's the difference right there," Meredith says.

The difference?

"He doesn't know he's 8," Derek says, scratching behind Card's ears affectionately. "Shhh. Don't tell him."

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